Debora Kuller Shuger. Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. ix+284pp. ISBN 0 8020 8047 2 Paper.
Robert C. Evans
Auburn University at Montgomery

Evans, Robert C. "Review of Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 16.1-6 <URL:

  1. This important study, first published in 1990 by the University of California Press, is here reissued in paperback as the sixth in the series of the Renaissance Society of America Reprint Texts. Anyone interested in the important connections between religion and literature in the early modern period will welcome this reprinting, as will anyone interested in recent critical and theoretical debates, particularly ones concerning "subversion" and "orthodoxy" in Renaissance culture. Shuger not only argues that religion was at least as important an influence on developments in this period as secular or material causes, but also that orthodox or "dominant" habits of thought were far more complex (and conflicted) than they are often assumed to have been. Her book is satisfying for any number of reasons: it tries to approach its subjects in ways that would actually have made some sense to people at the time; it is unafraid to question recent theoretical and interpretive paradigms; it shows an admirable familiarity and engagement with the details of primary texts, particularly those of prose writers; and it demonstrates an impressive grasp of the very approaches it questions. The sermons of Hooker, Andrewes, and Donne receive Shuger's extended attention, but she also discusses at length the poems in George Herbert's The Temple (as well as its tripartite structure) and Fulke Greville's drama Mustapha. The reader senses a scholar willing to see where the evidence takes her rather than one determined to push a preconceived party line. She pays her period the respect of trying to perceive and respect its differences from our own.

  2. A lucid "Introduction" outlines the main concerns, methods, and conclusions of the volume. Shuger there maintains that one problem with the popular "division of [Renaissance] beliefs into the orthodox and subversive is that so-called subversive ideas keep surfacing, however contained, within the confines of orthodoxy" (1). She helpfully lists the most important "habits of thought" she intends to investigate (12), and she provocatively suggests that in "some respects, the dominant culture was more radical, probing, and self-critical than has often been assumed, [while] in others it seems more primitive, more alien from our own habits of thought, closer perhaps to those of traditional societies" (15). Her first chapter focuses on Andrewes and Hooker as paradigmatic figures -- the former a more "traditional" thinker, the latter moving closer to modern habits of mind. Yet Shuger is especially persuasive when she argues that "awareness of paradox, problematics, and dissonance do not belong solely to the disenchanted, nor can we equate traditional faith (orthodoxy) with the attempt to conceal 'actual' social contradictions by an unproblematized optimism. The question is not one of 'foreign subversives' but of a complexity and tension within the dominant culture" (23). Her discussion of the co-presence of both rationalism and mysticism in the period, for instance, has implications that go far beyond the works of Andrewes and Hooker alone. In fact, throughout this book Shuger's tendency is to focus on intellectual situations of the "both/and" rather than the "either/or" variety.

  3. Shuger's willingness to approach her subjects on their own terms rather than trying to force them into a modern (or postmodern) mould is particularly evident in her discussion of John Donne's frankly "Absolutist Theology," in which she never flinches when confronting aspects of Donne's thought that must now seem distinctly old-fashioned. This chapter helps us understand how and why Donne and many of his Jacobean contemporaries could have supported, in very good conscience and in all sincerity, a theology, politics, and monarch regarded by many today as retrograde and flawed. At the same time, her discussion of Greville's Mustapha suggests the intellectual, ideological, and social changes that were already under way. She sees that play as part of a "disturbingly open-ended questioning of the values of sacrificial suffering and obedience -- the virtues constitutive of 'Donnean' Christianity" (214).

  4. Shuger is often especially effective when she moves from discussing ideas in the abstract to discussing the ways they were lived and embodied in the interactions of actual human beings. She helpfully reminds us, for instance, that if
    this society was stratified and authoritarian, it was also very small-scale and intimate by modern standards, and such personalization of power within small, relatively stable units cannot but have affected power relations by embedding them within a complex psycho-social web of needs and desires. The English monarchy and English society located authority within personal relationships and thus bound power to the basic human desire to be in relation (190).
  5. A particularly effective illustration of this interpretive principle occurs in the last chapter, where Shuger discusses Renaissance notions of patriarchy and fatherhood not by stressing their oppressiveness (the predictable modern response) but by exploring the ways in which patriarchal ideals were often conceived in opposition to instances of political, social, and economic oppression. From this point of view, the "image of the father need not belong to the realm of power and oppression but to an explicitly opposed arena of love and forgiveness. In other words, not all patriarchal discourse concerns whitewashing coercive power relations," since "the uniquely nonutilitarian basis of parental love allowed that relation to be perceived as essentially different from all other social ties" (233; 234). This final chapter is one of the most illuminating and suggestive in a generally illuminating and suggestive book.

  6. In a brief "Conclusion" Shuger offers an effective analogy to suggest the usefulness of multiple perspectives when studying the same phenomena. Thus she notes that a
    scientific realist describes, let us say a table, as mostly empty space intersected by the paths of whirling electrons, protons, and other subatomic bits; the subjective realist describes the same table as solid, motionless, teak, and rococo. One table is the object of theory, the other of experience (including historically informed experience), and it seems rather pointless to declare one real and the other an illusion. (252)
    Both tables "exist" in some sense; to focus on one to the exclusion of the other would be to simplify an inevitably complex situation. Shuger's achievement in this book is to help us glimpse the tables that Andrewes, Donne, Herbert, Greville, Hooker and their contemporaries actually experienced, rather than encouraging us to remain preoccupied with our own up-to-date perspectives, whose limits we sometimes ignore.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).